A few weeks ago, one reader asked me to post more stories about the Indiana Academy, to try to demystify the concept a little bit. Since news is a little slow on the gifted education front during the summer, I'll post something about it now.
The Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and the Humanities is a residential school for gifted high school juniors and seniors. It is located on the campus of Ball State University and enrolls approximately 300 students. It's one of about a dozen similar public schools around the country (though it's one of only a very few that also emphasize the humanities. Most specialize in math and science, because these are seen as "hard" subjects that you can be gifted in. I am continually amazed how few people think the humanities are actually difficult -- done right they are!)
Anyway, my husband and I were talking recently about whether we would ever consider such an option for our son, Jasper. My husband actually lived at home for part of college, so the idea of having a child leave even earlier, at 15 or 16, seems foreign. Plus, he reminded me, my "normal" high school in South Bend produced a number of successful people in the grade above me, and mine. He's met one woman who got her chemistry PhD at Stanford, one who is getting a PhD at Harvard, has heard of a guy in my class who is now a doctor, etc. All of which is true.
But the occasional bright student does not change the culture of a school. The most fundamental difference for me between South Bend Clay High School, and the Indiana Academy, is that the Indiana Academy had way higher expectations. It taught me to work hard for something -- to throw myself into it -- when success was not guaranteed. This intellectual risk-taking is almost completely absent from the American educational experience for bright children today, and that is a shame.
I've been thinking about that lately, because I am deeply involved right now in an almost fantastically hard task. I have recently taken on a book project (another collaboration) that must be written in its entirety in about 5 weeks. So I'm cranking out about 2,000 publishable words per day, in addition to my other writing projects.
But here's the thing -- it has never occurred to me that it might be "too much." And, indeed, the darn thing is pretty much done a week early. I have a lot of confidence in my ability to throw myself into something and make it happen for a simple reason: that's what I did at the Indiana Academy.
My first semester junior year, I floundered around a bit. I didn't know how to work -- how to set goals and execute against them. But I figured it out. My senior year, I felt that to get into a good college as a not terribly well "hooked" kid from Indiana, I really needed to stand out. So I decided to get straight A's while taking our AP chemistry and AP biology classes simultaneously, plus multi-variable calculus and various humanities class, writing long features for our school newspaper, applying to 7 colleges that all had their own application forms, etc. I really didn't sleep much. I was in the lab a lot, and drawing on every bit of math ability I had to figure out my chemistry equations and the like. But it all wound up working out. I got 5s on all my AP tests, got my A's, got into every college I applied to, won several writing contests. And as these things started happening, my view of myself started to change, too. I had the ability to figure out a situation and make things happen. This does remarkable things for your confidence.
At Clay I never had to work. Really. It's not just that I was the top student in my class, because I often was at the Indiana Academy, too. It's just that what was required to be the top student was more. In theory, all of us could have failed a test (and, indeed, on some of our AP chemistry tests, the top score in the class would be in the 70's; the class median was a B, and to get an A you had to be more than a standard deviation above the mean). That would never have happened at Clay. The tests and mastery level required was set so that someone was inevitably getting a 100. If that someone was inevitably you, then you didn't have to work hard. Simple as that.
We do no favors to bright kids by making things easy for them. The Indiana Academy didn't make things easy -- and that was its biggest gift to me. I'll write more on this subject later, because there are many things that happened at the Indiana Academy to make a good academic environment, but that was the big one.